Difference between revisions of "Rio de Janeiro"
Revision as of 17:27, 26 July 2007
Rio de Janeiro is a large city in Brazil, on the South Atlantic coast. Rio is famous for its breathtaking landscape, its laidback beach culture and its annual carnival.
Rio de Janeiro is largely divided into four regions:
It is not an uncommon mistake to point out Rio as Brazil's capital, as in fact it was until 1960. Beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema, the Christ The Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue, the stadium of Maracanã and Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) are all well-known sights of what the inhabitants call the "marvelous city" (cidade maravilhosa), and also the first images to pop up in someone's mind, along with the Carnaval celebration.
Sadly, most people also know Rio for its violence and crime. The drug lords and the slums or favelas are the tip of very old social problems. The favelas are areas of poor-quality housing, slums usually located on the city's many mountain slopes, juxtaposed with middle-class neighborhoods.
The South Zone gathers most of Rio's landmarks and world-famous beaches, in an area of only 43.87 square km (17 square miles). Many of them are walking distance from each other (for instance, the Sugar Loaf lies about 5 miles from Copacabana beach). Most hotels and hostels are located in this side of the city, which is compressed between the Tijuca Range (Maciço da Tijuca) and the sea. There are relevant places in other regions as well, such as Maracanã stadium in the North Zone.
The inhabitants of Rio, called cariocas, are known for being easy-going and friendly, in contrast to the more reserved citizens of other cities like Sao Paulo. Informality rules in dress codes and talking in most situations - with notable exceptions in business and religion, for example.
Rio was founded in 1565 by the Portuguese as a fortification against French privateers who trafficked wood and goods from Brazil. Piracy played a major role in the city's history, and there are still colonial fortresses to be visited (check below). The Portuguese fought the French for nearly 10 years, both sides having rival native tribes as allies. For the next two centuries it was an unimportant outpost for Portuguese Empire, until gold, diamonds, and ore were found in Minas Gerais in 1720. Then, as the nearest port, Rio became the exit way for the mineral outcomes and replaced Salvador as the main city in the colony in 1763. When Napoleon invaded Portugal, the Royal Family moved to Brazil and made Rio capital of the Kingdom (so it was the only city in the Americas to be capital of a European country). It retained the post when Brazil became independent, in 1822, and adopted monarchy as its government (with Emperors Pedro I and Pedro II). Many historians and Brazilians from other places say cariocas are still nostalgic of the Royal and Imperial times, which is reflected in many place names and shop names.
Rio is one of the country's major transportation hubs, seconded only by São Paulo.
Distance from some capitals:
Air-conditioned bus service operated by Real departs every 20-30 mins from 0530-2200 and runs between both airports, the main bus terminal and further along the beachfront in Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, and has its terminus at the Alvorada terminal near Barra Shopping in Barra da Tijuca. The full run takes at least 60 mins, often double. Single ticket R$ 6. Plenty of luggage space, comfy. A smaller bus, also by Real, same price, runs directly every 30 mins from Alvorada to Galeão by Linha Amarela in as little as 35 minutes, traffic allowing.
Taxis, though considerably more expensive (ex: Galeão - Copacaba R$ 70), are also a convenient way to reach the tourist areas.
From the US, there are non-stop flights to Rio de Janeiro only from Houston with Continental Airlines, Miami with American Airlines, and from Atlanta with Delta Airlines. From New York, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and most of the USA, you have to make a stop in Miami or in Sao Paulo to get to Rio.
The best seasons to travel to Rio de Janeiro with low airfares are from February (after Carnaval) to May and from August to November. Tickets from New York, for instance, can cost as low as US$699.00 including taxes. Buy your flights far in advance, do not wait till the last minute hoping to get a US$300 round trip ticket.
Rio's glorious Central Station, or Central do Brasil, made famous by a movie of the same name, serves mostly local commuter lines (SuperVia ), so it's unlikely that you'll arrive through here. It's worth a visit just to see it, though, you can get there either by bus or subway (subway is better; get off on Central station, line 1).
The long-distance bus depot, Rodoviária Novo Rio, is located in the North Zone's Santo Cristo neighborhood. Taxis and coach buses can get you to the South Zone in about fifteen minutes; local buses take a bit longer. Frescão air-conditioned coaches can be caught just off the bus station. The coaches connect the station to the city center and main hotel areas of Copacabana and Ipanema. Bus companies include :
Rio is connected by many roads to neighboring cities and states, but access can be confusing as there are insufficient traffic signs or indications of how to get downtown.
The main interstate highways passing through Rio are:
Ferries (barcas) connect neighboring Niteroi to Rio de Janeiro and arrive at Praça XV, in the city center.
A cab is one of the best ways to move around Rio. All legal cabs are yellow with a blue stripe painted on the sides. Taxis not designed like this are special service cars (to the airport or bus stations) or illegal. Rio has some of the cheapest taxi systems in the world, so don't bother spending a little more in exchange of speed and safety. Most of the tours in the South Zone will cost around R$15, and the car can usually hold four people. You can ask a cab for a city tour, and arrange a fixed price (may be around US$20). Major taxi companies include Central de Taxi, Ouro Taxi and Yellow Taxi.
After getting into the taxi, check to see if the taximeter has been started (as of December 2006, it charges R$ 4.30 for the minimum ride, called bandeirada). If not, ask the taxi driver to do so. You may be ripped off by some taxi drivers. Avoid the blue, green, and white taxis as they tend to charge considerably more for the same ride.
Prior to arriving at the airport, it may also be useful to pre-book your transportation to your hotel. Although there are not many reputable companies offering this service online, some, such as Rio Airport Transfer , allow you to book and pay before you leave home. For those of you visiting Rio de Janeiro for the first time, this is highly recommended as it means you will have someone waiting for you on the airport concourse, and you will avoid the hassle of haggling with the local taxi drivers.
Traffic within some parts of Rio can be daunting, but a car may be the best way to reach distant beaches like Grumari, and that can be an extra adventure. Avoid rush-hour traffic jams in neighborhoods such as Copacabana, Botafogo, Laranjeiras, and Tijuca, where moms line up their cars to pick up their children after school. In Rio, most road signals are placed after the curve you were supposed to take, and do not help unless you already know how to go there. Buy a map, and have fun.
Buses are a cheap and nice way to get around by day, while not exactly safe. By night they are more scarce but you can ride them anyway. Buses usually cost R$ 2.00 (as of December 2006), but some buses with air conditioning charge higher fares. The fare is paid in cash to a controller or the driver inside the bus, by passing through a roulette. There are no tickets. Some residents and students have a digital card for free pass. Keep an eye out for pickpockets when the bus is crowded, and don't be surprised if your driver goes a little faster than you'd like. Except for minibuses, all buses have two doors: passengers get in through the front door and get off through the back (it was otherwise until 2001-2002).
Bus stops in the South Zone are often equipped with a shelter and a bench, but sometimes, far from tourist areas, they are less obvious and have no signs at all - you might have to ask. Buses stop only when you hail them, by extending the arm. If you don't hail and there are no passengers waiting to get off, the bus simply won't stop. Actually, sometimes even if you wave your arms desperately, the result is the same. Even more absurdly, you could even try to block one of them by standing in the middle of the road; if the driver is not in the right mood, he will dodge you and won't take you. It's a matter of pure luck. There are no schedules nor timetables. Usually buses run no longer than every 15 minutes. However, unless it's daytime and downtown, they may take even an hour or longer (in fact, they may take this long even in normal times and places). The rule of thumb is: don't schedule your trip based on bus transportation.
There are 831 bus lines in Rio, but while they cover nearly all of the city, they might seem confusing to visitors, especially foreigners. Many lines differ only a few streets from each other in their itineraries, and some even have variants within the same line. Bus lines with a * or a letter means that this bus has a variant. It means that there may be a bus with the same name, same number, same origin, even same destination but with a complete different tour. Lines are numbered accordingly to the general route they serve:
Most popular lines for tourists are 583 and 584 (from Copacabana and Ipanema to Corcovado railway station), as well as 464 and 435 (from Copacabana to Maracanã). Typically bus drivers and controllers won't understand any foreign language. If you can't speak Portuguese at all, use a map. Trying to speak Spanish could be offensive or useless.
The Metrô Rio subway system is very useful for reaching areas from Copacabana to Downtown, although the rest of Zona Sul is not particularly well-served and it closes after midnight (it opens 24x7 during Carnival). It is the only totally safe transport in Rio. The air-conditioned subway is clean, comfortable, and quick, and in 2006 it received bilingual Portuguese-English signs, maps, and a loudspeaker system to make the life of millions of foreign tourists easier (sometimes in a low volume and difficult to understand or they just forget to announce, so pay attention as if you rely only on the speaker you can miss you station). There are two main lines: Line 1 (Orange) has service to Copacabana, the Saara district, and much of Downtown, as well as Tijuca, where you can visit Corcovado. Line 2 (Green) stops at the zoo, Maracanã stadium, and Rio State University. The two lines intersect at Estácio station.
Since 2003, the Metrô company operates bus lines from some stations to nearby neighborhoods which are not served by the subway system. This is particularly helpful for places uphill such as Gávea, Laranjeiras, Grajaú and Usina. Since the city grew around the Tijuca Range mountains, these neighborhoods will never be served by the subway, but you now can take the integração (connection) minibuses. The company calls it Metrônibus and Metrô na Superfície (literally, Subway on Ground), but actually they are ordinary buses in special routes for subway commuters. You can buy tickets for these - just ask for expresso (pronounced "eysh-PRAH-sso", not "express-o") when buying a ticket (price is R$ 3.00 as of June 2007), then keep it after crossing the roulette. When you leave the subway, give the ticket to the bus driver (who shall be waiting in the bus stop just outside of the station). If you buy an ordinary ticket, you won't be able to get this bus for free - then it will cost a regular fee.
Recently the last wagon of each train has been marked women-only with a pink window sticker, in order to avoid potential harassment in crowded trains. Some men, however, are still to get used to this separation (since it is very recent) and many women, who are accustomed to hassle-free everyday travel in Rio's subway, also think the measure is unnecessary. Anyway, if you're a man, avoid getting into trouble with local security staff and stay off the pink-marked wagons. Note that the women only policy for the wagon is valid only in specific periods of the day (usually the rush hour).
Rio Subway stations
Line 1 (Orange)
Line 2 (Green)
Rio's beaches are undoubtedly one of the main reasons why travellers visit the city. Copacabana and Ipanema are by far the most famous, but there are many others, each with a distinct character. Travellers should be aware that most beaches are polluted, and bathing is not advisable in any of the non-oceanic beaches (except for those in the island of Paqueta). The beaches that are often proper for swimming are Ipanema, Leblon, Recreio dos Bandeirantes, and Grumari. Copacabana, though worldwide famous, is usually dirty. Some of the most noticeable are (ordered from North to South):
It is also worth visiting the beaches in Paqueta, particularly:
Cariocas have an unique beach culture, with a code of customs which outlanders (even Brazilians from other cities) can misconstrue easily. Unlike many foreigners might think, there is no topless in the beaches - in fact, it is outlawed and women who dare to try it can be arrested. Girls can wear tiny string bikinis (fio dental), but it doesn't mean they're exhibitionists. For most of them, it's highly offensive to stare. Until the 1990s, men and boys wore speedos, but since then wearing bermudas or boardshorts has become more usual. Jammers are less usual but nothing wrong either. Smoking marijuana is quite common among youth (and not only), even in crowded spots, but it is still illegal (though a minor felony since 2006) and undercover policemen can watch for infractors. Other drugs are rare, except for beach raves.
Waves in Rio vary from tiny, calm in Guanabara bay beaches (Paquetá, Ramos, Flamengo, Botafogo, Urca) to high, surf-ideal waves in Recreio. In Leme, Copacabana, Arpoador, Ipanema, and Leblon, there's a popular way of "riding" the waves called pegar jacaré (pe-GAHR zha-kah-REH; literally, "to grab an alligator"). You wait for the wave to come behind you then swim on top of it until it crumbles next to the sand.
Residents go to the beach with their swimsuits on, under shorts and T-shirts or even wearing only the suit, which is normal. You will see people in speedos and bikini walking on the streets or in the bus. There are no "cabins" nor lockers for changing clothes in the beach. If you don't go with your swimsuit on, use a towel to cover yourself while changing. Women must not dare to take their bra off in the sand, even for a brief moment, or they might get trouble.
If you don't want a sunburn and you are typically white, get a strong sunblock for yourself. Locals are used to get a tan easily, but don't try to mimic them; you might end up at a hospital. Also, having a red-burnt skin is considered as "lame", and cariocas can make fun of it - especially girls, say, if you're trying something at a nightclub.
Commerce is common in Rio's beaches, with thousands of walking vendors selling everything from sun glasses to fried shrimp to cooling beverages (try mate com limão, a local ice tea mixed with lemonade). For food, there is also empada (baked flour pastry filled with meat or cheese) and sanduíche natural (cool sandwich with vegetables and mayo). Vendors typically shout out loud what they're selling, but they won't usually bother you unless you call them.
Although beaches are often considered a plural, democratic space, there are still some informal (and not too strict) "social area" divisions. In the South Zone, Copacabana attracts mainly tourists (foreign and national) and lower-classes bathers. Prostitution is also widespread there, even in daylight. Ipanema is the major beach for middle-class, and specifically the Posto 9 section (watchtower #9) is prefered by left-wing, intellectuals, artists, journalists and similar beach-goers. You can easily walk into a politician or someone famous there. The beaches in Barra and Recreio (Quebra-Mar, Pepê, Pontal, Prainha) were favored by surfers and hang-gliders until the 1980s, but now they are outnumbered by the middle-class and nouveau riche from the suburbs and also West Zone favela residents, such as now world-famous Cidade de Deus (City of God, that of the film).
There is also Praia de Ramos in the Guanabara Bay, a popular destination among low-class beach-goers. There the government built an artificial pool on the sand (piscinão), which is usually dirty and infected.
Still the greatest reason for visiting Rio seems to be the Carnaval. This highly-advertised party lasts for almost two weeks and it is well known for the escolas de samba (samba schools) that parade in Centro, on a gigantic structure called Sambódromo (Sambadrome). During Carnaval, Rio has much more to offer though, with the blocos de rua, that parade on the streets. There are now hundreds of these street "samba blocks", that parade almost in every neighborhood, especially in Centro and the South Zone, gathering thousands of people. Some are very famous, and there are few cariocas that have not heard of "Carmelitas", "Suvaco de Cristo", "Escravos da Mauá" or "Simpatia É Quase Amor".
The rest of the year, samba shows are popular with tourists, and are held at several venues like Plataforma and Scala. These are expensive and not really representative of Brazilian culture, they present a lot of almost naked women and bad musicians, a tourist trap (much like the real thing.) Much more interesting and genuine, though, are the night practice sessions held by the various samba schools in the months leading up to Carnaval. You will find only a small number of tourists here, and I promise you will be served the best caipirinhas of your trip! These go on into the wee hours of the morning, with the fun really only starting at 1-2 A.M. A good cab driver should be able to hook you up, and cabs will be available to take you back when you are samba-ed out. Salgueiro and Mangueira are good choices, as they are two of the larger samba schools, and are located relatively close to the tourist areas in a fairly safe area.
Note that a change is afoot that may make this genuine experience a thing of the past (or more convenient, depending on your viewpoint) for all but the most savvy tourists. The local government is in the process of building a complex of buildings where many of the samba schools are expected to move their practice halls and float-construction facilities from the gritty warehouses typically located in or near their home favelas. One can expect many more tourists, and shows made-up for the tourists as the tourist bureau milks this facility for all it's worth year-round.
Here is a list of some of the samba schools:
The newest addition for tourists is the Samba City.
Rio was the cradle of three of Brazil most important musical genres: samba, choro, and bossa nova. In recent years, there has been a boom of traditional samba and choro venues. A lot of them are in the downtown district of Lapa. There are good and cheap nightlife options, where you will see some of the best musicians of the country. Any of the city newspapers provide pointers to the best shows.
If you're not such an anthropological type of tourist, you can check out the same papers for tips on other kinds of music. Being a big city, Rio has big and small clubs that play almost every kind of music. The major mainstream clubs mostly play whatever's on the Radio - which is usually whatever's on the USA radios and MTV - but the underground scene has a lot to offer on Rock, E-Music, Rap and such. The best way to find out about those are the flyers handed or left at hostels, cinema and theater lobbies, nightclub lines, etc.
New Year’s Eve celebrations
Rio hosts the country's largest and most popular New Year’s Eve celebrations. The huge fireworks display and music shows attract 2 million people to the sands of Copacabana beach every year. People dress in white for luck and toast the arrival of the new year.
Hang gliding and paragliding
Hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro started in the mid-70’s and quickly proved to be perfectly suited for this town due to its geography with steep mountains encountering the Atlantic ocean which provides excellent take off locations and great landing zones on the beach. Operators include:
If you have the money the following operators give you panoramic flights in helicopters:
Favela (Shantytown) tours
The following operators offer tours of Rocinha (Warning: NEVER go on your own):
Pan American Games
Many tourist attractions in Rio de Janeiro as well as some urban facilities such as the subway are being revamped for the Pan American Games that will take place in 2007, when the city expects to draw a lot additional tourists.
Unlike North America, in Brazil the best universities and colleges are state-owned, being federal (national) or estadual (state proper). They might lack recent equipment and have poor building and housing, though professors are usually top scored. Most private universities are well equipped but have low reputation, except for the PUCs (Catholic universities), more traditional and few others that offer learning in specific areas (such as IBMEC or FGV)
Admission is gained by annual exams called vestibular usually held on Summer (Dec.-Feb.), but some have a smaller Winter one (Jun.-Aug.). There are no application letters, recommendation, interview or such. However, for foreign students there may apply special conditions in international partnerships (convênios) and associate programmes. In Portuguese, graduação is undergraduate level, and pós-graduação is graduate level. Titles such as MA, PhD don't have exact matches in Brazilian system and do not apply.
Contradictorily, private high schools and prep courses are the best in preparing for vestibular, so their students are the ones who score top and get into public universities. On the other hand, public schools are usually poor (except university colleges and the federal-funded system Colégio Pedro II). Therefore, you will notice the middle- and upper- classes youth is well educated, while lower-class students have no university-level education or, exceptionally, they went to a private one, if their parents saved enough to afford it.
If you are staying longer, major universities offer Portuguese courses for foreigners, usually for a very low price and with high educational standards.
When shopping in street commerce, always bargain; this can lower prices considerably. Bargaining in stores and malls, though, is usually impolite. But naturally merchants won't bargain unless you ask, especially if you are clearly a tourist. To tourists, items can easily be overpriced by a factor of 10% especially in highly informal markets such as Saara or on the beach.
Great bargains can be had on Brazilian-made clothing, as well as some European imports. Imported electronics are insanely expensive due to protective import duties. For example, you will find digital cameras sell for about twice what they sell for in the U.S.
Store managers in Rio often speak some English, as this gains employees an almost-automatic promotion. But "some" can be very little, so it is useful to learn at least some very basic Portuguese. Just knowing basic greetings, numbers, and how to ask directions and prices will get you at least a "B" for effort, and despite finding that store clerks may know more English than you Portuguese, it can still come in handy to know a bit of the language. Don't be afraid to resort to writing numbers, pictures, or resorting to pantomime. (I had a hilarious incident where I was trying to ask for a shirt with a picture of a bird, and instead got directions to the airport.) Clerks will often tap out prices for you on a calculator.
Rio has several malls (shopping centers, just like this, in English), most of them in the South and West Zones. Everything there is normally more expensive than in street shops, but safety and comfort might worth if you don't feel like walking too much.
In Rio de Janeiro you can probably find something to fit any craving. A good approach to local food is "comida a kilo" - buffet style restaurants where you pay by the weight of the food on your plate.
Don't miss Brazil's national dish, feijoada (fay-zho-AH-da), made with black beans and pork. It is typically served city-wide on Saturdays. For connoisseurs of meat, nothing beats a good rodízio (all-you-can-eat steak houses).
Travellers with fatter pockets may also splash out a bit at the Dias Ferreira street in Leblon, Rio's up-and-coming restaurants row.
Rio is also famous for its pastries and street food, heritage from Portuguese and old European culture. In most cafeterias (lanchonete; lun-sho-NETCH) you can have a pastel (pahs-TELL) or salgado (saw-GAH-do; local pastry) for less than R$2. Typical pastries are coxinha (ko-SHEEN-ya; chicken nugget shaped like a chicken leg), fimose (fee-MOH-zee; sausage nugget), and unique Rio's joelho (zho-EH-lyo; rolled dough filled with ham and cheese). Also try pão de queijo (pawn-deh-KAY-zho; cheese baked dough), typical from Minas Gerais but very common in Rio as well, and tapioca (typical from Bahia), a kind of crepe made out of manioca flour.
For drinking, ask for guaraná (gwa-ra-NAH; soda made of an Amazon seed), mate (MAHTCH; sweet ice tea; not like Rio Grande do Sul or Argentina's hot and sour mate), água de coco (ah-gwa-djee-KOH-ku; natural coconut water) or caldo de cana (caw-do-djee-KAH-na; sugarcane juice). There is also a common fruit called açaí (ah-sah-EEH), with a dark-purple pulp out of which are made juices, and ice-creams. Typical cariocas eat it like cream in cups or glasses, mixed with granola, oats or other flakes. There are many specialized juice shops that sell açaí, fruit juices (they make it as you ask, they don't store it ready, so you can ask them which fruit they have and may create a mix if you like) and some make sandwiches and other simple things to eat. These shops usually are cheap and hang fruits and the entrance or somewhere visible.
Warning: look for clean places, for hygiene can be poor in many street shops.
If your palate is homesick for more familiar tastes, Rio has most of world-class fast food chains (McDonald's, KFC, Outback, and a few Subway and Pizza Hut shops) except for Burger King and International House of Pancakes. Bob's and Habib's are the biggest national fast food chains.
For those who like to go clubbing, Rio has some good options to offers. You'll be seeing lots of flyers and talk about "raves", but those aren't the same as European ones. Usually Rio's raves are devoted to trance, which is pretty popular, especially with the upper-class youngsters, though some electronic parties do have good djs and live acts from around the world. The night in Rio is pretty much divided between mainstream and underground.
Mainstream would be such "raves" and big electronic festivals, as well a nightclubs like Bombar (Leblon and Barra da Tijuca), Baronetti (Ipanema) and Melt (Leblon) that are devoted to pop, dance and variations of house and trance. Those are not, however, places you go for the music. They are usually packed with "patricinhas" (tanned, long soft-haired girls with gym-built bodies) and specially "pitboys" (upper/middle-class boys, known for having various degrees of martial arts training and a certain tendency for violence). Yes, fights are one of the major problems with the mainstream clubbing scene in Rio. It's also fairly expensive. You'd be expecting to pay between R$30 and R$50 to get in a club (girls pay less, but all those clubs will have an f/m proportion around 1/3) and between R$50 and R$100 for a "rave" or electronic music party being held at spots like the Marina.
Though with far less options, the underground clubbing scene is more available than the mainstream. Most of the underground clubs are on Zona Sul and offer different parties for each day of the week. The underground club scene has a more diverse public, from goths to punks also with strong hedonistic tints. It's very gay-friendly and most of the parties and clubs have almost the same m/f proportion. It is also far cheaper than the mainstream clubs, with tickets starting as low as R$5 and not going further up than R$25.
While Rio's fancy hotels are along the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, there are lots of small and cheap, but clean, hotels around Flamengo and Catete.
The street in front of the strip of tourist hotels in Copacabana can be seedy, due to both garishly-dressed tourists, and a few opportunistic locals ready to take advantage of them. The apart-hotels in Ipanema are a much more pleasant alternative, being both better appointed and in a nicer neighborhood with fewer tourists.
Accommodation in the city centre can be convenient for business travellers. The surrounding areas, however, are far from pleasant at night, being nearly deserted and lacking decent restaurants and leisure options. The central Santa Teresa neighbourhood, however, is quite departed from the city centre life and has plenty of pleasant bed and breakfasts and a significant nightlife.
Given Rio's rise as a fashionable destination with creative and fashion people, some hotels that cater to the design-conscious crowd have also been popping up at the most upscale neighborhoods. The city also has a large selection of apart-hotels, which provide apartment-style accommodations with kitchen facilities. Private condominium apartments can also be rented short-term at reasonable rates, and can be found on the Internet. This is probably a preferable means of finding one of these than the notes that will be passed to you by anonymous persons on the street.
Accomodation in Rio is probably Brazil's most expensive. There is a relative shortage of hotel rooms on the cheaper range and booking in advance is recommended. Moreover, prices for most accommodation can more than triple during New Year's and Carnival. Those are very busy periods and booking well in advance is recommended. Note that most hotels in tourist areas will only sell 4-day packages and charge in advance - even if you want to stay only for a couple of days during those events. Other than those, the busiest month is January - summer holidays in Brazil.
If hostel life is more your style, they are easy to find in Rio. The more expensive ones boast locations that are short walking distance to either Ipanema or Copacabana beach. However if you prefer to stay in Lapa, Glória, Catete, and Botafogo, there are many other choices available. Hostelling has become increasingly popular in Brazil, and many of them are located at walking distance from hot spots. Beware, however, not to be taken to any fraudulent scheme - you might end up being robbed. Look for accredited places with Youth Hostelling International and similar franchises.
Most luxury hotels are in Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.
In order to fully enjoy your trip the traveller should pay attention to simple things. Avoid the downtown area, especially Saara, after dark. Although downtown is a relatively safe place during the day, after dark all the people who work there have already gone home. If you are going to a theater or a show, it's all right; but do not wander in those dark streets by night. Go to Ipanema beach, all lighted and policed during the night, though it's not entirely safe for tourists that look obviously like tourists at any time. Never go to Copacabana beach at night, you will get robbed. After midnight, you probably want to stay off Avenue Atlantica in general as there will only be prostitutes and beggars out at those times. Also, avoid Avenue Atlantica in front of the Praça Lido park, 3 blocks NE of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Try walking on the beach side, or even better, detour inland. This is the only block without any businesses, making muggings far more likely.
In the area around Copacabana beach the tourist should be aware of a shoeshining scam. The tourist will be approached by a shoeshiner and to his astonishment discover a large, dirty blot on his shoes (which is actually shoe polish, but looks like quite something else). The tourist is typically shown to a chair and has his shoes or sandals cleaned in the best manner. Only after this service is rendered, the outrageous price of somewhere around R$2000 is revealed. At this point, muscular friends of the shoeshiner typically appear to "oversee" the completion of the transaction. If you are approached by a shoeshiner, you should shout or state loudly "NO" and walk quickly past. Swearing in your native tongue could also act as a deterrent. Should you be so unlucky as to have been put in a position where you cannot prevent having your shoes cleaned, it will be of some relief to you that the price can often be haggled down to a level suited to the size of your wallet.
Avoid wearing jewelry or other signs of wealth if possible as these attract attention. Thieves have been known to run past targets and tear off necklaces, rings, and earrings without stopping. Earrings are particularly dangerous as tearing them off often harms the owner.
Favelas can potentially be unsafe in Rio. These slums grew from being impoverished neighborhoods but are now large areas ruled by drug lords. If you want to keep your nice vision of Rio, you don't need to go there. However, they are amazingly huge, and a new experience for some-- there are some travel agencies who take people on tours there. If you want to go, pay one of those agencies. Never, never go to a favela by yourself, or with an unknown guide. The tour operators have "safe-conduct pacts" with the local drug dealers. If you don't have one, you'll be in trouble.
In Brazil, every state has two police forces: the Civil (Polícia Civil) and Military (Polícia Militar). Only the latter wear uniform (in Rio, it is navy blue). The city of Rio also has an unarmed Civil Guard, dressed in khaki. Policemen can usually be trusted, but corruption in Brazil is still rampant and a few officers may try to extort you or demanding a little bribe. When this happens, it is usually very subtle, and the officer may typically say something about "some for the beer" (cervejinha). If you are not willing, refuse and ask for another officer. Don't ever try to bribe a policeman on your own - most of them are honest and you might end up in jail.
The local emergency dial number is 190.
At night, especially after traffic has died-down you may hear what sounds like explosions. This is not as menacing as it sounds, though it is still indicative of somebody up to no good. These are often firecrackers set-off as signals in the favelas. It might mean that a drug shipment has arrived and is in-transit, or that the police are making a raid into the favela. It is a signal to gang operatives who act as lookouts and surrogate police to be extra-vigilant. However, real shootouts may occur, especially on weekends. If you are on the street and you hear a shooting, find shelter in the nearest shop or restaurant.
For your safety, cross at the crosswalks - not closer to the corner - and watch for cars regardless of traffic lights.